Key's radio spot wasn't political - yeah right

Here we go again. No sooner do the elections appear over the horizon - a horizon amply obscured by the Rugby World Cup, it must be said - than does the issue of what is and isn't an election advertisement raise its persistent head.

This time Prime Minister John Key and the National Party are in the firing line. Why?

Because Mr Key accepted an opportunity to host an hour-long radio programme on Radio Live last Friday.

The complaint has been laid with the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Electoral Commission by the Labour Party.

More specifically, in relation to the Broadcasting Act, the complaint alleges that Mr Key's radio hour breached the prohibition on paid election programmes and breached the Election Programme's Code of Broadcasting Practice. In relation to the Electoral Act, the complaint argues that the appearance breached the prohibition on paid election programmes and was an unauthorised election advertisement.

Much has been made in the subsequent debate about the niceties of these Acts. Radio Live's apparent advice from the Electoral Commission was that the appearance would be acceptable as long as the subject of politics was avoided. Mr Key's disclaimer that the hour was to be an "election-free zone" allowed it to fall within the guidelines.

This is indicative of not only an absurdly naive view of what constitutes "the political" on the part of our legislation and election broadcasting guidelines, but also of the disingenuous nature of much of the "noise" surrounding this affair. It may well be that, technically, no laws have been broken, nor guidelines seriously contravened. That is yet to be decided.

But by any stretch of even the most limited of imaginations, morally, and in terms of fairness and balance, the decision by Radio Live to offer the hour exclusively to Mr Key, and for him and his party to accept it, was wrong.

First, it is very much in the nature of modern electoral politics that the personality and resonance of the leader of the party is central to its electoral initiatives. There is a pronounced drift towards "presidential-style" campaigns in this country. It has been confirmed that Mr Key will be a prominent feature on most of the National Party's election hoardings - precisely because he is seen by the party as its strongest electoral asset.

Conversely, it seems Mr Goff will not feature largely on Labour's because he is not seen as adding to the candidates' chances.

So what counts - in terms of media exposure - is reinforcement of the leader's brand. And Mr Key's brand is very much that of the everyday Kiwi bloke, neither overtly political nor ideological (and this has been one of the most stunning successes of his image shapers).

John Key is just a good joker who is as happy talking about his cat, if not happier, as he is about debt crises. So a "non-political" hour is perfect reinforcement and endorsement of the Key brand.

Now have a look at who he was interviewing on that show: Sir Peter Jackson and Richie McCaw, the former one of our most prized self-made success stories, and the latter arguably an even greater folk hero - or fast becoming one. Tack on the likes of another self-made multimillionaire, Richard Branson - to remind us all even if subliminally of Mr Key's own "narrative" (single-parent state house kid to multimillionaire) - and by association we have the naturalised order of things.

Sir Peter, Richie and John.

But there is also another element to this controversy.

Radio Live is owned by MediaWorks. MediaWorks was the company controversially given a $43.3 million deferment of spectrum licence monies by the Government - which argues that this does not constitute a "loan" because no money has changed hands.

At the time, at least part of the debate around this decision was precisely the extent to which this could be seen to construe partisanship or political indebtedness upon the company's stations.

And that is exactly the accusation the National Party and Radio Live open themselves up to now. It is not an unreasonable point, falling squarely into the "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" mode of mutual political admiration.

That the party and Radio Live might attempt to shake this off as within the realms of official guidelines and advice is quite simply the arrogance of apparently unassailable power, a condition consistently reinforced by govern-alone poll indications. But in the clear light of day it also borders on a kind of political chicanery that should not be acceptable in this country.

Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times.


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